It was nearly enough to make even the oversize copy of the statue of David, standing bare and proud outside the Palazzo Vecchio, look embarrassed.
That cycling was in desperate need of a change of leadership was laid painfully bare inside one of Florence’s most striking landmarks yesterday as a morning of farce tumbled into a lunchtime of squabble, an early afternoon of confused anger and the inevitable tears before tea-time.
Back before the bicycle had been invented Leonardo da Vinci was among those asked to decorate the Salone dei Cinquecento, the room in which yesterday’s election for the man who would rule cycling took place. He could have completed the job, invented a flying bicycle and cracked a few codes in the time it took the International Cycling Union to decide who should be its next president.
The tears belonged to Pat McQuaid, who was finally ousted by Britain’s Brian Cookson having clung on for dear life. “My wife has a husband back and my children their father back,” said the Irishman as he stepped out of office. By then it came as a surprise that he was not dragged out kicking and screaming.
McQuaid has to bear responsibility for what happened yesterday, five hours of shambolic process that embarrassed a sport that was already not in a good place. It is little wonder Cookson, who takes up office immediately, has promised root and branch reform to the governing body.
It was Cookson’s day, and not only because he won by 24 votes to 18. Rather it was because of the manner in which he ended the uncertainty and confusion.
There must have been times during the debate when he considered withdrawing his nomination, as who would want to lead this lot? Election day began with the validity of McQuaid’s nomination unclear, and it never became clearer despite the efforts of lawyers consulted by the UCI to claim otherwise. “Opinions can be bought and obtained,” observed the Australian delegate archly. “I know because I am a lawyer.”
Cookson sat on the podium, occasionally shaking his head, at other times raising his eyebrows. He doesn’t do facial expression; it’s all in the eyebrows. Then he snapped, stood up and strode to the lectern.
“We have had enough of this,” he declared, and demanded the congress forget about whether McQuaid could stand and just vote on whether he or the Irishman should be their president.
It was a dramatic moment, and a gamble too. An earlier vote on an amendment to the constitution that would permit the incumbent president to stand without nomination (McQuaid was not nominated by his home federation, instead by the Thais and Moroccans – there remains absolute uncertainty whether that was or wasn’t within the constitution) had been tied at 21-21. After eight years in the job McQuaid still had strong support, particularly in Asia. But it worked and it may have even swung a final vote or two behind Cookson. It was a display of leadership that had been lacking throughout a morning which had included delegates accusing their leaders of “changing the rules once the race had begun”. “It’s a masquerade,” said the Algerian delegate.
At one point proceedings were delayed because the Russian interpreter had gone missing. It was easy to understand why she had taken flight. It was easy to feel for those delegates who work for their sport seeing it made a mockery of.
“I felt,” said Cookson afterwards, “that I owed it to the cycling world to put an end to the misery we were all going through. We can all agree that today was pretty disastrous for cycling and the UCI.”